Editor's Plate: I Need an Incentive to Stay Put

Nov. 14, 2013
The whole country needs to rethink the practice of competing for business by giving away taxpayer money, especially for existing jobs.

When I heard that Archer Daniels Midland was asking the nearly bankrupt state of Illinois for incentives for staying in the state, my first impression was also to ask the Village of Itasca, the State of Illinois and maybe even the U.S. for $24 million in tax breaks or I will move my home office … somewhere.

I've been bothered for some time about government handouts to any company that pushes a shovel into a developing plot of land or threatens to box up all its employees and move to whatever locale is the highest bidder. I'm glad I took a few deep breaths, read more and considered ADM's unique plight – and rewrote my original draft of this editorial – before I lambasted the company. Although I'm still not thrilled with the whole thing.

To catch you up on the news: Archer Daniels Midland, a $90 billion global company, still calls small-town Decatur, Ill., home but is looking around. It's not planning to move out its massive processing facilities, thankfully, but it wants a new corporate headquarters for 100 or so executives and support staff.

To keep those people in Illinois, it's been asking various governmental bodies and economic development groups for $24 million in incentives, according to reports.

My first reaction was: Why not just cut a $240,000 check to each of those 100 employees, bribing them to lobby their company to stay in Illinois? That cuts out a lot of the red tape.

One problem is, Illinois is broke. By some estimates, it's the state with the worst debt in the country. Illinois is estimated to have $47.2 billion in debt, which is growing by the minute (which is another looooong and nasty story). That's $3,632 for each and every one of its 13 million residents.

Wait! Do I owe someone $3,632?

Time for me to move to another state … unless I get incentives.

Back to ADM. The company started in a growing Decatur, Ill., in 1902 or 1923, depending upon which lineage you want to follow.

Side note: A. E. Staley, now a part of Tate & Lyle, was founded in the same town, just before ADM. And when it shopped around for a new HQ in 2010, it got $15 million to move about 100 employees from Decatur to Hoffman Estates, a northwest suburb of Chicago, not too far from O'Hare Airport.

Despite those two agribusiness giants, Decatur – which is a good three-hour drive from Chicago and O'Hare Airport -- is arguably in decline, its population down to 76,000. I don't think there are a lot of dining options in Decatur. I once had a really nice Swiss steak at Clare's restaurant, and the red velvet cheesecake is to die for. It's the perfect place for the likes of me, but it might be a little déclassé if I were entertaining and trying to impress guests from United Arab Emirates.

Anyway, ADM sounds pretty set on moving its headquarters to someplace more cosmopolitan. We're talking about only 100 employees, but key people with big salaries who travel a lot. Or get visited by people from other companies who travel a lot – but who aren't too keen on the three-hour drive down Interstate 55.

In this magazine and especially on our website, we record many plant construction projects. It's rare when an announcement doesn't include a line "with assistance from the Acme County Economic Development Assn.," or something like that. So ADM is certainly not alone. I've done some figuring and in some cases, if the goal is to provide income for deserving people, it would just be easier to write checks to all the residents of Acme County than to wait for the trickle-down effect.

And position this in front of a staggering national debt (and government shutdown and debt ceiling and sequester) and it looks nonsensical that any locale anywhere in this country should be giving away any dollars, local or federal, just to keep jobs, especially existing ones.

I suspect I'm just not seeing "the big picture." As staggering and legitimate as I think my math is, I'm missing the point.

In the end, I'm not blaming ADM. They have very legitimate reasons for moving out of Decatur. And if there's money on the table(s), they would be fools not to take it. But how did this whole country get into this robbing-Peter-to-pay-Paul scenario?

How do you stop it? Should it be stopped? If you're looking for a moral to this story, it's just that some serious reconsideration should be given to these programs before the entire country's economy, and every little economy within it, gets worse. Instead of playing state against state and community against community, isn't there a more rational way to nurture U.S. manufacturing?

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